Monday, April 30, 2012

Israel must expose Arab plan to ' cleanse' Jews

The New York Times of 16 May 1948 contained details of an Arab plan based on Nuremberg laws to 'ethnically cleanse' their Jews

Time for Israel to counter-attack on the issue of Jewish refugees, argues Guy Bechor in a fascinating piece for the Hebrew medium G-planet. Here is a paraphrase. (With thanks: Janet, Michal)

For decades almost no-one referred to Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Why? Arab regimes claimed these Jews left voluntarily for fear of a 'spontaneous' uprising by Arabs angry at the establishment of Israel. In the Oslo talks, the Israeli leadership conceded the lie that the only refugees worth bothering about were the Palestinians.

While the Nuremberg Laws drawn up by the Nazis are well known and part of human history, the Nuremberg Laws for 'Arab' Jews are not known to this day. It's time to break the silence and use it to counterattack. New documents prove it.

Alarmed at the surge of immigration of Jews from Europe and the imminent declaration of a Jewish state, Arab League states met in Syria in 1946 and Lebanon in 1947 under the guiding spirit of Iraqi PM Saleh Jaber. A Justice for Jews from Arab Countries report in 2008 found that the Arab states had agreed a draft plan to rob their Jews of their property, threaten them with imprisonment and expel the impoverished Jews, knowing Israel would have no choice but to absorb them.

A spy in the Egyptian delegation blew the whistle, but Israel was by then too preoccupied with the threat of war to be concerned at the ethnic cleansing of Jews. In January 1948 a worried World Jewish Congress brought a copy of the document to the Lebanese UN Economic and Social Committee chairman, Charles Malik. He refused to discuss it.

Years later, Guy Bechor met and challenged Malik over this antisemitic document. The Lebanese government had no choice - it had to toe the line, he said.

Original article (Hebrew)

Google Translation

Peace researchers tell their stories of displacement

With thanks: Sylvia (via Martin Kramer)

Despite any efforts to suppress it, the 'narrative' of Jewish refugees from Arab countries seems have generated its own momentum. It is even seeping into the 'conflict resolution' industry in Israel. Says Martin Kramer:" I've known these people for 18 years as friends and colleagues, and until now, I have never heard these stories. Audio, 18 minutes, and very worthwhile."

For the first time, Esther Webman (right) and Ofra Bengio (left), both researchers at the Moshe Dayan Peace Center, tell their personal stories on this Diwaniyya Podcast.

Esther Webman was born in Cairo of first-generation Egyptian Jews originally from Syria and Iraq. The family was stateless (this was the case for 40 per cent of Egyptian Jews). She remembers a Muslim standing by the door to protect the family from the 1948 riots. The trigger for the family's departure was the 1952 Egyptian officers' coup. Esther's father, a Zionist, felt the 'ground was already shaking' under his feet, and decided to leave Egypt in 1954, two years before the peremptory Suez exodus of 25,000 Jews. Esther tells how she was shocked to leave everything behind, to move to a hut in the mud and with no electricity in Israel. Her father exchanged his suit for overalls.

Ofra Bengio's family had been in Aleppo since time immemorial. Jewish women dressed as Arabs so as 'not to be abused'. During the 1947 riots the family was protected by Muslims. She remembers that her school and the beautiful Great Synagogue were burned down, although the Aleppo Codex it housed was saved. The Jews were not allowed to leave and Ofra's father, a schoolteacher, lost his job. The family were among very few Jews who left with a passport. In Israel they stayed in a transit camp (ma'abara) for a year. They had given up everything.

Samir Ben-Layashi, a (Muslim) Moroccan researcher now working at the Moshe Dayan Center, lived in the Jewish quarter of Meknes. His father had purchased a large seven-room house from the Amar family for $5,000 (presumably, a song). The Amars decided it was time to leave in 1968 after the Six-Day War and settled in Nahariya in Israel. Samir and his fellow Moroccans considered the Jews as different from themselves. They dressed like Frenchmen and spoke French rather than Arabic. Jews and Muslims were generally on good terms (although by then, the vast majority of Jews would have left Meknes).

Listen to Podcast

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Film shows that Berber Jews are 'in exile' in Israel

With thanks: Elder of Ziyon

Kamal Hachkar is an unusual man who set himself an unusual task.

A Muslim Berber, he was born in the town of Tinghir in the Atlas mountains of Morocco, although brought up in France. Judeo-Berber communities go back to ancient history, and pre-date the Arab invasion by centuries. Jews dominated commercial life in the town - all but three shops in the market were owned by Jews. All left in the late 1950s and early 1960s for Israel.

Hachkar decided to search out his family's former Jewish neighbours and record his journey on film. The upshot was a French-language documentary shown at the New York Sephardic Film Festival, Les Echos des Mellah. Here is a 5-minute snippet with English subtitles. Hachkar wants to follow it up with another film, taking his family's Jewish neighbours back to Tinghir.

The film has been hailed as an essay in Jewish-Muslim coexistence. It is a valiant attempt to educate Moroccan Muslims who didn't know that Jews lived among them, let alone for milennia. Hachkar brings together Jews and Muslims who knew each other by name, who worked together, who cried when the time came to leave.

It is touching that Hachkar made the effort to learn Hebrew in order to greet Moroccan Jews in Israel like long-lost friends. The conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine seems like an abstraction, a product of the inexorable sweep of forces beyond their control. The conflict is independent of the affection and harmony reigning between fellow Chleurs (Berbers).

We are told that Berber Jews and Muslims supported each other against common enemies in Morocco. (No mention of the fact that Berber tribes also could, and did, attack and loot Jewish Mellahs). "There was no antisemitism", says one Israeli Moroccan (no mention that the most fanatical Muslims of all were the Berber Almohades in the Middle Ages). An old Jewess could not stop repeating, as she kissed her fingers in Hachkar's direction: "Muslims are good people!"

So if life was so harmonious - why did they leave? One woman admits that relationships changed with the neighbours after Israel won the 1948 war. "They didn't say good morning to us any more," she said. But such cracks as appeared in the good neighbourly relations are papered over by tearful encounters between Hachkar and nostalgic Tinghir Jews, whose rusty Berber tongue has by now became peppered with Hebrew words.

But there is more to this film than meets the eye. The credits reveal that the documentary was sponsored by the "Fondation Hassan II pour les Marocains residant a l'Etranger". The message is that Jewish Berbers living in impersonal Israeli apartment blocks in Yavne are 'in exile' from their real homeland. Their place is really in Morocco.

Hachkar acknowledges that Judeo-Berber life is no more, "mais quand il y a un autre on peut savoir qui l'on est." This is a re-statement of the Sartrian idea that Jewish existence is defined by the Other. Take away the Other, and Jewish identity collapses. The implication is that Jewish life in Israel is hollow, lonely and unfulfilling without the Muslim neighbour.

In the end, however, Hachkar is on a hiding to nothing, trapped in a timewarp of generational nostalgia. Only the elderly immigrants in Israel - those with least to offer and to gain from their new country - still feel attached to Tinghir. The hovels they lived in, the poverty and disease, are beyond romanticisation. The younger generation no longer speak Berber or remember the folk songs. Apart from anything else, young Israelis of Moroccan origin will not exchange their washing machines for a hard existence only a little less primitive than it was in their parents' day.

Hachkar is a brave man to try and mend the deep and affectionate historic ties between Berber Jews and Muslims, but even he is becoming a victim of the inexorable sweep of historical forces outside his control. Already he is being accused of 'normalisation' *with Israel. Coexistence is not a question of good interpersonal relationships, it is ultimately all about politics.

Elder of Ziyon post

Orwell lives on - at the Jewish Museum

*rough English translation here

How music can build bridges to peace

Profile of Meir Buzaglo, a brilliant Israeli academic born in Morocco and bred on different musical influences. "Music is the soul of peace and a messenger for change", he tells Haaretz.

Meir Buzaglo, who was born in Morocco in 1959, grew up in a home suffused with music: piyyutim; hundreds of traditional Hebrew texts set to music by his father; a mixture of sacred and non-sacred music; a blend of Jewish, Muslim and Jewish-Muslim melodies.

“Father would take popular songs and ‘convert’ them to Judaism. Students would come to prepare for singing the songs of supplication in winter, and all self-respecting singers would come to sing and listen to the others sing.

“My brother Shalom, who was my mentor, made sure that I also heard rock ‘n roll, top-quality English rock, as well as the sound-tracks of Indian movies. Different types of music express different aspects of the soul. Whoever sings well is on top of the world. People like Aviv Geffen, Naomi Shemer, Kobi Peretz. Those who can sing well are in a special category. Plato says: ‘When modes of music change, the laws of the state always change with them.’ The reason is that music is the soul of a nation. Clothes and food might be the outward signs of a culture, but a nation’s soul is in its music.

“Profound change will never occur if music does not change. Look at the Zionist movement, for instance, which arose on the wave of a major musical phenomenon. The ethos changes when the music changes. Without jazz, Barack Obama would never have become president of the United States ... Music is the soul of a place; it is both a messenger and an agent of change.”

Buzaglo is a senior lecturer in the Hebrew University’s philosophy department; he has degrees in mathematics, physics and the philosophy of science, and his doctoral thesis was on the 18th-century Jewish philosopher Salomon Maimon. Over the years, he has received among other things a Fulbright scholarship, a Hebrew University citation for excellence in teaching, and a three-year scholarship from the Israel Science Foundation.

The articles and books he has either written himself or edited deal with various aspects of philosophy, logic, the connection between language and mathematics, and medieval thought. The music he absorbed at home, and which has become an integral part of his life, has played an important role in his philosophical thought as well as his approach to sociopolitical issues.

“Conflict between parties can be along the lines of what was depicted in the movie ‘Avatar,’” says Buzaglo, “but it can also take place between parties that share a common essence, in which case there is the possibility of peaceful resolution. Music is one of the central components in the kind of Jewish-Arab friendship we would like to see. The prayer book of Moroccan Jews contains the phrase, ‘We begin when we hear the prayers in the mosque.’ This embodies the ability to see the ‘other.’ It boils down to being aware that the muezzin is calling his fellow Muslims to prayer services. This surpasses the idea of ‘building bridges’ or looking only at the economic dimension [of conflict]: It is the ability to open your eyes.

Read article in full

Friday, April 27, 2012

Jewish refugees are unsolved human rights issue

The Bigio family, fighting for restitution

Jewish refugee rights are not a spanner in the works - they are an unresolved human rights issue, and the key to peace and reconciliation, Lyn Julius argues in Ha'aretz:

Refael Bigio remembers the moment in 1962 that the regime of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser seized his family's property. Police had cordoned off the Bigio bottling plant at 14 Aswan Street in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. A policeman barked at Bigio and his father: "Hand over the keys!"

The nightmare of dispossession that was destined to afflict some 870,000 Jews across the Arab world - forced out or expelled with just the shirts on their backs - had caught up with the Bigio family. Ever since, the Bigios have been engaged in a long-running battle for restitution. Believing they could not get justice in an Egyptian court, their fight has pitted them against the mighty Coca-Cola corporation in the U.S. courts. This week, the family is girding its loins for the next legal round.

Not only have few Jewish refugees ever received compensation, but their plight has never been internationally recognized. Yet, between 1948 and 1972, more Jews in the region became refugees than Palestinians (who numbered 711,000 ), and they lost some 50 percent more in assets, according to economist Sidney Zabludoff. Some 200,000 sought sanctuary in the West, but the majority found refuge in Israel.

The Bigios must have felt alone in a David-versus-Goliath fight for justice - until just before Passover. That's when Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon announced a sea change in Israeli foreign policy. Henceforth, the Jewish refugee issue would be raised in every peace-based negotiation with Arab states and Palestinians. Israeli embassies will lobby parliaments to adopt resolutions recognizing the refugee status of Jews from Arab countries. Israel is proposing that both sets of refugees be compensated, based on the value of their assets at the time they became refugees, from an international fund.

Many will wonder - with Israeli-Palestinian peace talks going nowhere fast - why throw another spanner in the works? When he was justice minister in 2000, Yossi Beilin of the Meretz party dismissed the subject of Jewish refugees as a distraction from the land-for-peace Oslo agenda, and closed down the unit that collected data on Jewish property in Arab countries. In any case, he reasoned, refugees were a final-status issue, to be resolved far into the future.

Why, after years of neglect, has Israel now decided to dust off the cobwebs?

No doubt successive governments saw Jews from the Muslim world as Zionist immigrants, not refugees. Singling out Jews from Arab countries would have obstructed their successful assimilation out of the transit camps into the great Israeli melting pot. A public fuss might also have impeded quiet efforts to get hostage remnants out of Arab countries (the rescue of Syrian Jews was still going on until the 1990s ).

The primary reason why the Foreign Ministry has balked at raising the topic of Jewish refugees, however, is that the government feared bringing the Palestinian refugee issue to the fore. But even as Israel has remained silent, the Arab side has never ceased raising the Palestinian refugee issue.

Some believe the Palestinians cannot be held responsible for what happened to the Jewish refugees. But Ayalon argues that the Arab League states, which instigated the 1948 war against Israel, were responsible for creating both sets of refugees.

But when all's said and done, if Israel were to concede an independent Palestinian state, and if agreement were reached on borders, settlements and even Jerusalem, peace negotiations would still founder on the immovable rock of the Palestinian "right of return." Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed the "right of return" in a Jordanian newspaper interview in September 2011. Even Fatah "moderates" will not give up their "right" to Arabize Israel by flooding it with the four million descendants of Palestinians, who, under the aegis of the UN Works and Relief Agency, are uniquely permitted to pass on their refugee status from generation to generation.

This is how Ayalon's Jewish refugees initiative will promote peace - by making both sides recognize that a permanent exchange of roughly equal numbers of refugees took place.

One might argue that no linkage is possible - one refugee problem has been resolved, the other has not. But the non-resettlement of Palestinian refugees is an abuse of human rights. Palestinians need to follow the model of successful Jewish refugee resettlement by being allowed to acquire full citizenship in a Palestinian state or in their host Arab countries, instead of being fed the vain hope of a "right of return" to Israel, a country that most "refugees" have never seen. The international fund would also be used to finance the rehabilitation of refugees in host countries.

True, the situation is not symmetrical. Jewish refugees do not wish to return to a hostile and unsafe environment in Arab states. But alone of all refugees, Palestinians in the Arab world have been denied the humanitarian solution they deserve. Jordan has been turning away Palestinian refugees fleeing the current turmoil in Syria - in only the latest example of a cruel and cynical policy.

The issue of Jewish refugee rights is not a spanner in the works. It remains a key, unresolved human rights issue. Since February 2010, governments of all political stripes have been bound by a Knesset law committing them to secure compensation for Jewish refugees in any peace deal. The 52 percent of Israel's Jews who descend from refugees forced out by Arab and Muslim persecution will not back a peace deal that ignores their painful history. And there's another reason why Ayalon's initiative is encouraging: An appreciation of Jewish suffering is demonstrably more, not less, likely to achieve reconciliation, when Palestinians realize they are not the only wronged party.

Read article in full

Crossposted at Harry's Place

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Israel gets thumbs-up from young Mizrahi Jews

As it celebrates its 64th birthday, Israel receives almost universal endorsement from these young citizens of 'Arab' origin. The consensus among Israelis whose parents came from the Arab world or Iran - irritatingly described by the video-maker as 'Arab Jews' - is that they would not 'go back' to Arab countries if there was peace." Israel is our country," " I prefer Israel," "I like Israel", "living here is natural for me," they say.

Some expressed the desire to visit Arab countries like Morocco. One of the two who said they would like to live there confessed he was not connected to his Arabic roots.

Many still held on to the food culture or religious ritual. All those with Yemeni ancestry expressed no desire to go back there. No beaches (the interviewer pointed out that this is not the case), no understanding of the language, no freedom - were reasons given.

"We don't belong there", said a man with a Libyan parent. One woman of Moroccan origin said Morocco was 'scary'. She did not trust Muslim-majority states.

"But ask me - would I move to New Zealand?" she smiled.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rachel Sassoon Beer: the first lady of Fleet Street

Who would have imagined that the grand-daughter of an Iraqi Jew could have played a leading role in producing two quality British newspapers - and all before women had the vote. Jewish Ideas Daily tells the fascinating story of Rachel Beer, nee Sassoon, now the subject of a biography by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Coren.
Rachel's grandfather David Sassoon, born in Iraq, was a shrewd entrepreneur dubbed the "Rothschild of the East." He made his fortune through a global mercantile empire that traded cotton and silk throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas—and illicitly exported Indian opium to China. He educated his sons in sacred Jewish law and ritual and the not-so-sacred customs of commerce. S.D. Sassoon, the third of David's sons, settled in London in 1858 to represent the family's business interests there. Suddenly transported to a new world of opulence and shifting social standards, S.D. tenaciously clung to his old-world piety—and added the profits of his sometimes-murky commercial transactions to the family coffers. He and his wife Flora acquired a lavish mansion and a manicured estate. They sent their three sons to Oxford.
S.D. and Flora hadn't counted on a daughter like Rachel, who refused to play by their rules. Though she was a piano prodigy with a fertile, inquiring mind, she was expected to languish at home, a casualty of 19th-century medical theories that deemed the education of women injurious to their reproductive organs and sanity. But with shrewdness worthy of her grandfather, Rachel circumvented her constraints, using the family's political and social connections to learn nursing and establish herself as an impresario of music and the visual arts.
Rachel paid a price. Nearing thirty, with her father dead, she found herself autonomous and unleashed but decidedly past her prime. Then, in London in the 1880s, at the high noon of imperial Britain, she met Frederick Beer, the sole inheritor of a fortune made by his German forebears.
The Beer family had earned its wealth through investments in transportation and communications, building railway lines throughout Europe, the Americas, and the Far East and revolutionizing the world by wrapping it in telegraph lines. Frederick, intellectual and scholarly, set aside the family's commercial interests to assume the reins of his father's newspaper, the Observer, a Sunday weekly dedicated to the social and political concerns of the rising middle class. Rachel and Frederick, kindred spirits with a passion for one another and the visual and performing arts, as well as a penchant for social justice, joined their ambitions and fortunes in an Anglican church in August, 1887—one day after Rachel, uncoerced by spouse, custom, or law, converted to the Church of England, alienating her family forever.
But, with her marriage, Rachel found her journalistic calling. First, she became a reporter and editorialist for the Observer. When she sought more editorial control, she offended the paper's male staff; so, Frederick bought his wife a newspaper of her own, the Sunday Times, of which she became editor-in-chief.

Read article in full

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At last, Israel's UN envoy speaks of Jewish refugees

Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries at last made their way into the international spotlight, when Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to the UN, spoke about them at a debate on the Middle East at the UN Security Council on 23 April. He repeats the point at a subsequent press conference:

Here is what Ron Prosor said about Jewish refugees at the Security Council debate:

"Madame President,

"There is another great truth that this organization has completely overlooked for the past 64 years. In all of the pages that the UN has written about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, in all of its reports and fact-finding commissions, and in all of the hours dedicated to debate about the Middle East, there is one great untold story. Or - to be more specific - there are more than 850,000 untold stories.

"More than 850,000 Jews have been uprooted from their homes in Arab countries during the past 64 years. These were vibrant communities dating back 2,500 years. On the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Babylonian Jewry produced many of Judaism's holiest books - and thrived for two millennia. In the great synagogues and libraries of Cairo, Jews preserved the intellectual and scientific treasures of antiquity into the Renaissance. From Aleppo to Aden to Alexandria, Jews stood out as some of the greatest artists, musicians, businessmen, and writers.

"All of these communities were wiped out. Age-old family businesses and properties were confiscated. Jewish quarters were destroyed. Pogroms left synagogues looted, graveyards desecrated and thousands dead. The pages that the UN has written about the Palestinian refugees could fill up soccer stadiums, but not a drop of ink has been spilled about the Jewish refugees.

"Out of over 1088 UN resolutions on the Middle East, you will not find a single syllable regarding the displacement of Jewish refugees. There have been more than 172 resolutions exclusively devoted to Palestinian refugees, but not one dedicated to Jewish refugees. The Palestinian refugees have their own UN agency, their own information program, and their own department within the United Nations. None exist for the Jewish refugees. The word "double-standard" does not even begin to describe this gap.

"This discrepancy is very convenient for some in this Chamber, but it's not right. The time has come for the UN to end its complicity in trying to erase the stories of 850,000 people from history. The time has also come to speak openly in these halls about the Arab World's role in maintaining the Palestinians as refugees for more than six decades.

"Jews from Arab countries came to refugee camps in Israel, which eventually gave birth to thriving towns and cities. Refugee camps in Arab Countries gave birth to more Palestinian refugees. Israel welcomed its Jewish refugees with citizenship and unlocked their vast potential. As they rose to the highest levels of society, our refugees lifted the State of Israel to new heights.

"Imagine if Arab countries had done the same with their Palestinian refugees. Instead, they have cynically perpetuated their status as refugees, for generation after generation. Across the Arab world, Palestinians have been denied citizenship, rights and opportunities.

"All of these are facts that must be neither forgotten nor overlooked, as we look to move forward on the path to peace."

Read speech in full

Article in the Jewish Chronicle

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My barmy Barmitzvah - in Abu Dhabi

No country is off-limits to the intrepid Chabad - least of all Abu Dhabi, where rabbis Bob and Khaled (sic) cast off their baseball caps to perform an unusual mitzvah. Charming coming-of-age story in Ingulfed blog: (with thanks: Andrew)

They both took off their baseball caps, and under them — yarmulkes. Dressed and bearded to the nines of Hasidic custom, these two Chabad rabbis had come via Dubai from Brooklyn to light candles with relocated Jews on a legally nonspecific floor of our Abu Dhabi apartment building (lets call it twenty-three). It was the fifth night of Hanukkah, a night that for its inability to ever fall on the Sabbath — the week’s most holy day — is distinctly holy. The rabbis resolved the apparent paradox: clearly, this day must need no help to get holier.

The rabbis, henceforth Rabbi Bob and Rabbi Khaled (for puzzling social, possibly legal reasons), led the Hanukkah blessings, touching the shamas to all five candles, now burning brightly with the green light from the minarets below. Everyone felt that all around us, there was Islam and spirited expatriatism — not as marks of oppression, but as marks of distinction: what made us run-of-the-mill deli patrons in New York now made us bakers of homemade bagels and fasters at unpredictable seasons. And with shared distinction comes a kind of solidarity, a kind of fort-like refuge. Still, we mustn’t build a moat — the hardest part is joining together without snubbing those who aren’t gathered. But with blessed juices flowing, chocolate coins clinking against the tile floor, and kids screaming encouragement at their dreidels — that didn’t really seem like a problem.

And of course, as with any Jewish gathering — there was a bit of bargaining.

“Have you ever put on tefillin before?” Rabbi Bob asked.
I waffled — I couldn’t remember what that was exactly. He explained: tefillin are boxes containing bits of scripture that very observant Jews may wear on the arm and head during morning prayers. Known also as “phylacteries”. Sounded like some kind of nosy dinosaur you’d meet at the pharmacy. I wasn’t sold.

“Uhh, I don’t think so. I was never Bar Mitzvahed.” I told him the quick story of how my parents had offered me the choice when I was seven or eight to go to Hebrew School and prepare for a Bar Mitzvah. It wasn’t a big deal to them and — seeing my Jewish friends complaining and missing hours of video game and playtime on Wednesdays and Sundays — it wasn’t a big deal to me either.

“Come join us tomorrow morning — it will be your Bar Mitzvah.”
It all seemed so fast. These were the guys I’d always given a birth wider than earshot on the Columbia campus or on Subway platforms for fear of joining a Jewish cult or missing “30 Rock”.

“I… I have to be at work tomorrow,” I explained, rueful.
“We’ll do it beforehand — plus, isn’t that your boss?”
Could I really change my identity as an unbarmitzvahed Jew that quickly? so efficient and convenient to my work schedule? Isn’t religion supposed to be difficult?

But Moshe Bob then, perhaps unknowingly, made the perfect appeal to my love of the absurd and illogical. “Where else,” said Bob, “if not in Abu Dhabi?”
Touche, rabbi.

Already late for work at 9:30 AM, I ascended to the apartment they’d been given for the night. Rabbi Khaled answered the door, welcoming me in to an apartment strewn with what my limited vocabulary might describe collectively as “Jewy things”.

Bob handed me a kippah. He wrapped the leather strap of the shel rosh around my forehead, the shel yad round and round my left arm, down to my palm and several times around my middle finger. Each held a box filled with unknown words — one pressed against the head, the other wedged against the heart.

I held a page-long prayer, written in English.
“God understands all languages,” said Bob.
I never mentioned that I wasn’t completely sure about that guy — that even though he’s surely the character in the Torah everyone least identifies with, I’m not all too convinced there’s anyone even there to do the understanding. I started reading.

Looking out at decades of Islamic architecture and a cityscape adorned with mosque domes and pictures of Sheikhs, I performed the Jewish liturgical version of a Las Vegas Wedding. For those who put on tefillin every day, it is a continuous affirmation of their beliefs, of their devotion. For me — “one time only” — I rode this mitzvah on the express train to manhood, eight years late by traditional custom, and only an hour late for work.

I exited on to the street, unwrapping celebratory chocolate the Rabbis had brought from Israel. (A bad job at UAE customs, maybe?) Another man (I recognized them now in solidarity) asked me for directions. I pointed him in precisely the right direction, with instructions exact to the meter. So this is what it is to be an adult.

Read blogpost in full

Mahmoud Abbas rewrites Iraqi-Jewish history

Presidents Abbas and Obama flank US Vice-President Joe Biden

With thanks: Lily

It is hard to understand why the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has suddenly decided to rewrite the history of the Jews of Iraq. His bare-faced lies are on display for all to see in The Palestinian newspaper Ma'an in a translation by MEMRI. Here is a taste, for those with a strong stomach:

The third interesting point is the bitterness with which the Israeli poet described the predicament of his (Palestinian) teacher, who left Jerusalem because of the war, as well as his own [fate] of being forced to leave Iraq, his homeland and the homeland of his fathers, on the pretext of reuniting families. This statement precludes any [possibility that there was a] Zionist or religious motive for his immigration to Palestine. He was forced and compelled to leave, against his will. This is what happened to the Iraqi Jews, who were relocated to Palestine as the result of a tripartite Zionist-British-Iraqi conspiracy. The role played by Ben Gurion in this [conspiracy] has already been exposed: he sent his emissaries [to Iraq] to intimidate the Jews, and they harmed and killed [Jews]. Then they left it to the media to spread rumors that extremist Arabs had been behind the despicable acts."

Better blogs than mine have already deconstructed Abbas's revisionist rantings. Elder of Ziyon quotes from the American Jewish Yearbook:

"The Arab League boycott of "Zionist goods," in which Iraq had already distinguished itself in 1946, furnished a ready pretext for commercial discrimination. The boycott was against all goods coming from and via Palestine. Typical of the stupidly blind fanaticism was a case reported in October, 1947, when Swiss goods arriving in Baghdad by an airplane which had landed at a Palestinian airport were confiscated and burned at once.
"When the UN partition decision was announced, a storm broke out in Iraq as in all other Arab states. Nevertheless, the Iraqi government did not allow any serious bloodshed or pillage to develop. It contented itself with nonviolent economic pressure. To protect Iraqi Jews, Chief Rabbi Sassoon Kedmi of Baghdad was compelled to declare to the Iraqi press the "complete solidarity of Iraqi Jews with other Iraqis in the denunciation of Zionism and in their determination to continue living in brotherly Iraq, as they have lived for hundreds of years."
"However, the fury had been let loose. After December 1, 1947, no Jews were permitted to leave Iraq, and those who had not yet left could not now escape. At first the Iraqi assault on local Jewry was financial, Jews being forced to contribute large sums to the fighting fund for the Palestinian Arabs. From January to May, 1948, life in Iraq was extremely unpleasant. Anti-Jewish feeling ran high, especially as Iraqi troops were defeated and the Arab refugees began arriving from Palestine. However, there was an outward calm. There were no pogroms in Iraq then, at least none that received any publicity abroad.
"The storm really broke on May 15. Then, Jews were treated in Iraq as enemies within the gate, spies, agents provocateurs. Iraqi Jewry's only hope for the future lay in emigration.
"When Iraq joined the other Arab nations in the war against Israel in May, 1948, the antagonism and bitterness, which had been stored up against the Jews of Iraq during the six months that followed the United Nations decision to partition Palestine, found an outlet. There were demonstrations by angered mobs and riots in some of the smaller towns in Iraq which resulted in some loss of life and damage to property. But for the most part Iraqi Jewry suffered from forms of official persecution, such as travel restrictions, dismissal of Jewish government officials, excessive taxation, and "voluntary contributions" to "general welfare" causes.
"All Jews were classed as enemy aliens, and all Zionist activities were characterized as treason. Imposing martial law, the government embarked on a program of searching Jewish homes "for illegal weapons," since, under martial law, arrests or searches could be made on the sole basis of suspicion. Many Iraqis found this a convenient way of settling long-standing personal feuds with their Jewish neighbors. All in all, 310 Jews were arrested in Bagdad alone during the initial period of the war; about half of these were released after questioning, and the rest were held for trial. Similar acts occurred in other towns and villages.
"The anti-Jewish repressions also served as a lucrative source of income for the government, which imposed heavy fines upon arrested Jews, thus replenishing its treasury and helping to finance the cost of the war. In addition, the government requisitioned buildings owned by the Jewish community, as well as some Jewish-owned private buildings, to house Arab refugees from Palestine. The sequestration of Jewish property and business, and blackmail, official and unofficial, proved profitable undertakings."

Read post in full

Elliott Abrams unpacks Abbas' 'narrative' in his Weekly Standard blog:

"Why did the wicked Zionists do this? Because European Jews were not coming to Israel in sufficient numbers. So, he recounts, “the Zionist movement turned to the Jewish communities in Iraq, Yemen, North Africa, Egypt and Syria, urging them to emigrate, though these [communities] had no motivation to leave, for they all enjoyed high standards of living, as well as civil and political rights that the European Jews had not even dreamt of for centuries.”

"In this context it is probably impolite to mention Abbas’s 1982 doctoral dissertation in Moscow, in which he argued with respect to the Holocaust that “the number of Jewish victims might be 6 million and might be much smaller – even less than 1 million.”

"Nor perhaps is it charitable to harp on his assumption that the Jews in Arab lands “all enjoyed high standards of living.” In any event it should not be necessary to go over the well-known history of what happened to Jewish communities in Arab countries after the establishment of the state of Israel: the riots and pogroms, the theft of property, the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist legislation, which led a million Jews to flee to Israel."

I have little to add, except to emphasise that the trials and tribulations suffered by the Jews of Iraq began well before the establishment of Israel. A major factor in their exodus was the fear that the 1941 Farhud might be repeated. No doubt Abbas will write an article telling us Zionist agents were behind that too.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Libyan-Jewish music scene in Israel

Chris Silver's blog Jewish Morocco is a treasure trove of unusual factoids. Here's his latest post on long lost Libyan records which resurfaced in Israel. (With thanks: Michelle)

Between 1949 and Libyan independence in 1951, some 30,000 Libyan Jews left their homeland for Israel. Harvey Goldberg writes in the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times (p. 442) that when the Israel-bound ships sailed from the harbor at Tripoli, immigrants sang Moses’ song of redemption at the sea (Exod. 15). But what else were they singing?

Geoula Barda, Libyan master of the mawwal and Zakiphon standout

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Libyan Jewish musicians flocked to Jaffa to record with Raphael Azoulay and his sons for their Zakiphon label. These musicians included Bano Gniss, Joseph Mango Boaron, Geoula Barda, Suffa Kahlon and others. They recorded Andalusian music (ma’luf), Libyan pop and original chaabi songs. Through the latter, these musicians succeeded in narrating their own migration experiences and confronting their new realities.

It is unclear whether any 78 rpm records were ever commercially recorded in Libya in the first half of the twentieth century as attested to by Jonathan Ward at the excellent Excavated Shellac blog. LPs and EPs were indeed recorded in independent Libya but it remains a real challenge to find any of this music today. So when I stumbled upon a stack of Libyan 45s in the Jaffa flea market last month, I knew I had uncovered rare musical artifacts that had to be shared with readers and listeners.
Yaacov Yamin, music writer and composer who worked closely with Geoula Barda

As you will hear, Libyan music is and feels different from the rest of Maghrebi music. Separate the Egyptian pieces out and you are left with killer violin, mawwal that feels like sacred ritual and trance inducing repetition. The Arabic is different as well. It was difficult to choose one 45 side to post but I decided to go with Labnyia Labsitt Sirwal by the famed Joseph Mango Boaron. This is one of the first pieces Boaron recorded in Israel. He manages to capture the initial reaction to the Libyan experience in Israel by narrating the story of a young woman from Amrous, a village-turned-city just outside Tripoli. In Israel, this young Libyan woman flirts, smokes and worst of all - as he repeats over and over again in the chorus: the world and times are terrible…this girl is wearing pants.

Unfortunately most of this music has been lost and many of these musicians have passed including Joseph Mango Boaron. I know very little of Bano Gniss. Suffa Kahlon…well it seems he may still be alive. His story is so unbelievable that I will have to save for another post. I was pleased to learn that Geoula is still belting it out. Check out this performance of hers at a 2011 Libyan wedding.

Read post in full

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Salafist 'flytilla' planned for Lag La'Omer

  President Moncef Marzouk (right), paying a visit to the al-Ghriba synagogue on Djerba on the 10th anniversary of the al-Qaeda bombing, is shown a Torah scroll.

With thanks : Ahoovah

A Salafist 'flytilla' is planned to disrupt the annual Lag La'omer pilgrimage to the island of Djerba, which this year takes place on 9 May.

The good news is that only some 144 out of 4,000  have so far accepted the invitation by the Solidarite Palestine organisation on Facebook.

"Look at the media reports, have the Zionists got the right to sully the land of Tunisia in all impunity?" the Facebook page asks, calling for activists to demonstrate their ' Islamic resistance' on 9 and 10 May. It also tells them where they can find cheap flights.

The Facebook page Union des Tunisiens a l'Etranger has posted the following:

"In May of each year, thousands of Jews from France,  Israel,  Israel,  Israel,  Israel,  Israel,  Israel,  Israel,  Israel,  Israel, Israel,  Israel,  Israel,  Israel,  Israel,  Israel,  Israel,  Italy,  North America etc. converge towards the island of Djerba from Israel, Israel, Israel,  Israel, of Israel,  Israel,  Israel, from Israel,  on the Ghriba pilgrimage, which is one of the oldest synagogues in the world and dates back 2,500 years."

 The campaign gives cause for concern:  by claiming to be against 'normalisation' with Israel it is in fact targeting freedom of religion in Tunisia.

The Tunisian government is anxious for the pilgrimage to go ahead. It is one of the main revenue-earners in the tourist calendar on the island of Djerba. 

Last year the pilgrimage was cancelled. Ten years ago, 21 tourists were killed when al-Qaeda bombed the Al-Ghriba synagogue.    

Djerba - a model of interfaith coexistence (video taken two years ago)

New film focuses on the Jews of Sudan

  Good times in the Sudan

You might imagine 'The longest kiss in history' to be a romantic Chick Flick, but Frederique Morgan's new film is actually about the Jews of Sudan.

The “longest kiss in history” refers to the point in Sudan where the Blue Nile meets the White Nile. Why French filmmaker Frédérique Cifuentes Morgan included this riparian trivia in the title of her new documentary is not certain, since neither Nile has much to do with the subject of the rise and fall of Sudan’s Jewish population.

Originally consisting of eight families that immigrated to the region during the Turkish-Egyptian rule in the 1870s, the Jewish community remained relatively small (it never exceeded 1,000 members) and was primarily concentrated in the capital city of Khartoum. Sudan’s Jewish population grew primarily via immigration, mostly by Sephardic Jews, and many individuals found success in commerce and in administrative positions within the 20th century British colonial government. Anti-Semitism was relatively rare – the community never faced danger during World War II, and a special arrangement with Catholic schools offered educational opportunities for Jewish youth.

However, Sudanese independence in 1956 and the new republic’s focus on pan-Arab fellowship created an unpleasant environment, and by the 1960s the Jews of Sudan emigrated to Israel, Europe and the U.S. In 1977, the exiled Jewish community made arrangements with the Sudanese government to transfer the bodies from Khartoum’s Jewish cemetery for reburial in other countries.

The film is rich with interviews of many Sudan-born Jews who reflect with rueful happiness on their lives in pre-independent Sudan.

Read  article in full

Friday, April 20, 2012

No 'right of return' for Jewish assets in Arab lands

Interesting article in Cutting Edge News focusing on the Bigio family's long fight for restitution of their bottling plant, nationalised by Egypt. As the Bigios demand a re-hearing in the US courts, the writer, Juda Engelmayer, points out the hypocrisy which demands 'a right of return' for Arabs yet rides roughshod over the rights of Jews.

The Arabs claim that the the right of return is an individual right, enshrined in international law, which no international or national leader can sign away. This right, however seems only enshrined on a one-way street for Palestinians. For Jews, there is no such right, nor any major calls for justice to be served on the behalf of Jews who were forcibly kicked out of Arab lands after the British and French Mandates created the Arab states of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and so on, following the end of World War I.

Syrian Jews, Iranian Jews, and Iraqi Jews all lost property, assets and other valuables, but no one cries for them. There are no movements or United Nations discussions, and in fact, there is no justice in the American courts either, leading one to believe that the right of return is more of a Palestinian ploy than a real international issue applicable to all.

More recently than the end of WWI, General Abdul Nasser came to power in Egypt and ordered the arrests of Jews and confiscated their property, both personal and commercial. He deported thousands, confiscating all their assets. Most of the deportees were limited to one suitcase apiece. Being so bold, in 1964, Nasser declared that Egypt believed in the Nazi cause, saying, “Our sympathy… was with the Germans.”

Fast forward to today, for a case that few are even paying attention to; it is one that reeks of the hypocrisy of the “treasured” right of return law that Arabs so audaciously cling to. It is the illegal trespass of America’s Coca-Cola on property outside Cairo that was taken from a Jewish family by Nasser in 1962. Coca-Cola built a bottling plant in Egypt in the 1940s when it leased land and buildings from the Egyptian Jewish Bigio family, land it owned since 1929. The Bigios were later expelled from Egypt in 1965, after their property was confiscated. Egypt nationalized their property. After the Begin-Sadat talks and the 1978 Camp David Accords brought a treaty, Bigio returned in 1979 and managed to obtain a decree from the Ministry of Finance that the property “had never been legally sequestered or nationalized and accordingly remained” Bigio property.

Yet, a series of back handed deals between Egyptian insurance companies and the government caused the land to fall into the possession of the Misr Insurance Co., a government-owned entity that refused to turn it over to the family. Then, in 1993, Egypt announced the privatization of the bottling facility and Bigio notified Coca-Cola of his family’s interest in the property, but Coca-Cola closed on a deal to acquire ownership interest in the property anyway. Egypt was not going to offer justice or any right of return to the Jewish Bigio family.

Even so, there was hope that the matter could be settled by the American court system, as Coca-Cola is an American operation. Now, 14 years later and after the United States Court of Appeals has reversed dismissals of the case twice, it was shot down again on the argument that the theft was committed by Coca Cola Egypt and not by the American defendants. Fourteen years through the system; the initial suit was dismissed under the Alien Tort Statute stating that there was no jurisdiction and that the act of state doctrine barred the exercise of jurisdiction. The 2nd Circuit reversed it on appeal.

The Bigios filed again in 2009, claiming “unlawful taking and exclusion of plaintiffs,” citing the trespass and civil conspiracy as well as unjust enrichment. However, the case was dismissed indicating that Egyptian law prevails. Remarkably, it also said the Bigios “have not plausibly alleged that defendants enriched themselves without just cause.” This was the same Coca-Cola Company that knowingly entered into a lease with the Bigios in the 1930s then ran to buy the land after it was confiscated from them–which they were well aware of.

This past March, the court found that Coca-Cola and its subsidiary occupied the property under a legitimate claim of right for Egyptian law and therefore their possession is not illegal. Then, in what seemed to be an act of kicking a man when he’s down, Coca-Cola filed a “Bill of Costs” to collect the printing costs of its brief from the truly impoverished Bigios. They took the land and now asked for blood.

Fortunately, Coke’s lawyers attached a bill for a completely different brief that was longer than the one Coca-Cola filed. In addition, it never filed a “Supplemental Appendix,” that they also demanded reimbursement for. Diet Coke — obviously embarrassed — withdrew its request for costs once it was revealed. Minor justice served, while the major offense remains intact.

The family now has until May 2 to request a rehearing. Their attorney, Nathan Lewin, intends to continue the pursuit of justice all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The final outcome of the case will be interesting, because it speaks volumes of the fraudulent nature of the right of return. What cuts for Arabs, does not appear to cut the same for Jews. If Jews demanded their rights of property, assets and land from Arab countries that threw them out, and the United Nations and world leaders joined in the call for Justice for Jews, how lopsided would this world seem on that day? Perhaps a court can decide once and for all that Israeli Law applies for cases involving Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Read article in full

Government tries to save Djerba pilgrimage

The Al-Ghriba pilgrimage at its most popular

The annual Jewish pilgrimage to the Tunisian island of Djerba should be maintained as a symbol of the North African nation's openness to the world, Tunisia's tourism minister said Tuesday.

Elyes Fakhfakh's remarks come at a time of uncertainty for Tunisia's small Jewish minority, which has been alarmed by the rise of ultraconservative Islamist groups spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric since the country's longtime dictator was overthrown in January 2011.

Jews have been living in Djerba since 500 B.C. and the synagogue there is believed to be one of the oldest on the African continent. The Jewish community in Tunisia itself numbered 100,000 in 1960s, but most left following the 1967 war Arab-Israeli war.

The tourism minister told journalists on the sidelines of a Mediterranean tourism conference that the pilgrimage, set this year for May 9, should be protected.

"Celebrated for hundreds of years, this religious rite is an achievement that should not change because it illustrates the openness of Tunisia to the world," Fakhfakh said. "It is an achievement of the revolution, which established freedom of worship."

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Holocaust survivors still denied compensation

Holocaust survivors in Israel (Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski)

If they arrived in Israel after 1953, North African Jews who suffered at the hands of the Nazis and their wartime allies are ineligible for compensation. The Jerusalem Post has the story:

They suffered a similar fate to European Jews during World War II, yet 67 years after the war, thousands of North African Holocaust victims remain unrecognized by the State of Israel and are ineligible for compensation.

According to Dr. Miriam Gez-Avigal, chairwoman of the Public Committee for the Integration of Eastern Jews, immigrants who moved to Israel after 1953 fail to receive Holocaust-era restitution – despite efforts made over the past decade to recognize and compensate Holocaust survivors from Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria.

“On this Remembrance Day, we are calling on the government to address a historical injustice and immediately provide compensation to survivors who immigrated from North Africa after 1953,” Gez-Avigal said. She estimates there are 2,000 survivors from Tunisia and a few thousand more from other North African countries.

“There is no reason that people who were persecuted by the Nazis and who suffered during the war should live out the last years of their lives destitute and without dignity because of unjust and unreasonable legislation,” Gez-Avigal added.

During the war, much of North Africa was either under direct Nazi occupation or under the control of its allies.

Jews there were singled out for harsh treatment, with many sent to forced labor or death camps in Europe while others had their property repossessed or were forced to wear a yellow star.

Following the war and the creation of the Jewish state, North African Jews sought aliya – similar to communities from Europe – but, according to Gez-Avigal, their arrival was delayed due to logistical constraints.

Decisions made by the Jewish Agency meant that many Tunisian Jews did not emigrate until the mid-1950s.

Despite the fact that North African Jews could not schedule an aliya date, a 1957 law dealing with compensation for victims of Nazi persecution states that only those who arrived in Israel before 1953 are officially eligible to receive financial reparations.

Today this pay comes – via the government-run Holocaust survivors Rights Authority located in the Finance Ministry – from German and other European governments under various agreements reached with the Conference for Material Claims Against Germany.

“We have been recognized by the German government and the French government, the money is there but the Treasury has refused to release it because the law does not recognize those that came after 1953,” Gez-Avigal said, adding that the dwindling Holocaust survivors’ living situations deteriorate daily.

The Finance Ministry says that survivors who arrived after 1953 miss the compensation threshold but emphasize that additional amendments expanded eligibility for a few thousand Libyan Jews who came before 1953. Survivors of death camps, labor camps and ghettos – regardless of when they arrived here – collect Holocaust restitution funds.

Nachum Itzkovitz, director-general of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, told The Jerusalem Post that he was among the first to publicize the loophole excluding thousands of North African survivors from additional financial aid.

“There is no doubt that we have already taken many steps to address this problem, even though there is a lot more that needs to be done,” Itzkovitz said, as the law excluding those who made aliya after 1953 also neglects other countries’ survivors.

Itzkovitz said that a law passed in 2008 expanded the definition of who is a Holocaust survivor and increased the number of people eligible for financial assistance. The ministry hears requests from many individuals who believe that they now qualify for aid.

Read article in full

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Holocaust survivor who converted to Islam

Leila Jabarin, born Helen Brashatsky, waited more than fifty years to tell her Muslim family a shocking secret - that she was born in Auschwitz concentration camp. AFP reports:

UMM EL-FAHM, Israel — For more than five decades, Leila Jabarin hid her secret from her Muslim children and grandchildren -- that she was a Jewish Holocaust survivor born in Auschwitz concentration camp.

Although her family knew she was a Jewish convert, none of them knew of her brutal past.

It was only in the past week that Jabarin, who was born Helen Brashatsky, finally sat down and told them the story of how she was born inside Auschwitz, the most notorious symbol of Nazi Germany's wartime campaign of genocide against Europe's Jews.

In an interview with AFP to mark Holocaust Memorial Day which begins at sundown on Wednesday, Jabarin, now 70, chuckles as she talks about what to call her.

Her Muslim name is Leila, but in this Arab town in northern Israel where she has lived for the past 52 years, most people call her Umm Raja, Arabic for "Raja's mother" after her first-born son.

Like most Jewish children, she also has a Hebrew name -- Leah -- but she just likes to be called Helen.

She was six when she came to live in Mandate Palestine with her parents, just months before the State of Israel was declared in May 1948.

They arrived in a ship carrying Jewish immigrants from the former Yugoslavia, which was forced to anchor off the coast of Haifa for a week due to a heavy British bombardment of the northern port city, she says.

Despite the war which broke out as soon as the British pulled out, it was a far cry from the savage reality the family had witnessed inside Auschwitz, says Jabarin who is dressed in a hijab and long robes, but whose pale skin and blue eyes belie her Eastern European parentage.

Her mother, who was from Hungary, and her father, who was of Russian descent, were living in Yugoslavia when they were sent to the Auschwitz with their two young sons in 1941.

"When they took them to Auschwitz, she was pregnant with me, and when she gave birth, the Christian doctor at Auschwitz hid me in bath towels," she says, explaining how the doctor hid the family for three years under the floor of his house inside the camp.

Her mother worked as a maid at the doctor's home, while her father was the gardener.

"They used to come back at night and sleep under the floor and my mother used to tell us how the Nazis were killing children, but that this doctor saved us," she says, recalling how her mother used to feed them on dry bread soaked in hot water with salt.

"I still remember the black and white striped pyjamas and remember terrible beatings in the camp. If I was healthy enough, I would have gone back to see it but I have already had four heart attacks.

"It is scary and very, very difficult to remember that place where so many people suffered," she admits, speaking in a mix of Hebrew and accented Arabic.

She also speaks Hungarian, a little Yiddish and some Russian.

The family were finally freed when the camp was liberated in 1945 and left for Mandate Palestine three years later.

Read article in full

Young generation loses interest in Persian heritage

The BBC has a report about the dilemmas facing Iranian Jews in Israel. There is more about RadisIN, the Farsi radio station beamed into Iran from Israel. But try as she might to depict Israeli-Iranians as 'caught in the middle', the reporter Beth Ryder finds that the unfinished Koresh cultural and social centre in Holon testifies to the younger generation's lack of interest in their Persian heritage.

Across town on the lower ground floor of a suburban shopping centre, Parviz Barhourder helps to run a full-time radio operation in his native Farsi language.

Every day of the week, Iranian poetry, music, and politics can be heard blasting over the air waves of Radio RadisIN, but the station has one overall aim - peace.

"Throughout history, until the current regime came to power, there had been constant good relations between Iran and Israel. The aim of our station is to re-establish that relationship," Parviz explains.

Since the station's establishment three years ago, a team of 38 Iranian-Israeli volunteers keep RadisIN streaming over the internet, cable and satellite to a large national and international audience of Farsi speakers.

The station takes calls, SMS messages and emails from listeners in Iran, and one of the most commonly talked about subjects, Parviz says, is the impact that Western economic sanctions are having on the country.

"People talk about their weariness with the current situation and tell us how they're having to store food and other life necessities at home."

Parviz is concerned about the impact military action could have on his Jewish friends who remain in Iran.

"I'm worried about them. If anything happens, the regime will take them as hostages," he says.

Parviz Barhourder

Parviz Barhourder estimates his station has around 6,000 listeners in Iran

Iran is home to the largest population of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel. Numbers have declined since the establishment of Israel in 1948, and the revolution which saw the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, but an estimated 25,000 still live there.

"We need to convince the current regime in Tehran to leave their atomic project and become another normal country," says Parviz.

"As soon as they have access to an atomic bomb, a third world war will be created."

He does not want to see war with his homeland, but - like many in the community - he would ultimately support military action as a last option.

"If it comes between the hammer and the rock, what are we going to do? The window of opportunity is getting narrower and narrower everyday."

Not far from studio, the Beit Koresh community centre for Holon's Iranian population is closed and unfinished. There is a Persian library, but this can only be accessed when the building is open - and that is very rarely.

Standing outside, Kamal Penhasi - editor of Israel's only Farsi-language magazine Shahyad - remembers the role the centre played for him, arriving in Holon as a 16-year-old in 1979.

"The centre seemed so beautiful, we would come here every week - it was really important," he says.

But as Iranians have become more integrated in Israel, many of the younger generation have lost interest - the community has just not pulled behind the centre, says Kamal.

"Every Iranian in Holon knows about Beit Koresh - if we were united we could finish the project.

"But we are a wealthy people and everyone wants to be a manager."

These days, Iranian-Israelis are an integrated and economically successful group. Shaul Mofaz, the newly elected leader of the country's opposition Kadima party is Iranian-born for example.

Construction began on Beit Koresh over 30 years ago with the financial aid of Iran's Shah - that was a time when relations between pro-Western Iran and Israel were broadly warm. These days, it is illegal for anyone with an Israeli passport to visit Iran.

Kamal longs to see the removal of the current regime but thinks the most likely way for that to happen is for change to come from within.

"The Iranian people, especially the youth, are capable of bringing about political change, as we saw after the 2009 presidential elections. We in the West should be willing to step in and help them with financing, logistics, information and media support."

At the magazine's headquarters, a small shop just off the main stretch in Holon, Kamal's 22-year-old niece Rose Penhasi says she is worried for Iranian civilians.

"I'm afraid for students like myself in Iran. Here in Israel, we are free to say what we feel, but I know in Tehran they are scared."

Beit Koresh

Beit Koresh community centre was once a hub for Iranian-Israelis

Despite being born in Israel, Rose learnt Farsi at home before speaking Hebrew, and still tries to maintain links with the country of her parents.

"I used to be able to talk to people my age in Tehran via internet chat rooms and social media, but these days government blocks are making it increasingly difficult."

Her interest in Iran is unusual amongst her peers. "When I'm at home with my parents and grandparents, I feel 100% Iranian, but when I'm out with my friends, I'm Israeli."

"Most second generation Iranians have forgotten their roots," she says.

It is important, she says, for people to acknowledge the distinction between the Iranian people and the regime.

"The civilians in Iran are not like the government and we need make sure they know that Israelis love and support them."

Rose hopes to visit Tehran one day, to see the family home in Amir Abad she has heard so many stories about, but in the current climate this option is out of the question.

Read article in full

Article by Ben Lynfield in the Times of Israel

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How did Morocco get from massacres to tolerance?

While Andrew Rosemarine's attempt in The Times of Israel to recall the terrible massacre of Fez - whose 100th anniversary is this week - is praiseworthy, there is a dissonance with the rest of his article, which tries to portray Morocco as a beacon of tolerance and even judeophilia. When and how did the Morocco of the Fez pogrom become the friendly place he knows and loves? My comments in italics.

During Holocaust Remembrance Day week, it is important to remember that Sephardim too have suffered terribly at the hands of our enemies. Indeed, exactly 100 years ago this week, mutinous Moroccan troops looted the mellah (ghetto) in Fes, Morocco’s then capital, murdering 45 Jews and wounding many more. Nobody remembers it now, but the 1912 Tritl (as it is known in Morocco, “sacking” ) has powerful resonances today.

To mention the Holocaust in the same breath as the Fez pogrom is awkward and distasteful. There is no real connection between the two events. Yes, Sephardim have suffered at the hands of our enemies, but the rest of Rosemarine's article tries to prove the opposite - that Morocco is an exception - a beacon of tolerance.

The link between Fes and Jewish persecution is a close one. Jews were murdered here every time an anti-Jewish sultan gave the green light.

This is rather misleading. In the case of the Fez pogrom (Fes is the French name) the sultan Moulay Hafid actually saved Jews from being murdered by opening up his palace to them.

Prior to the Tritl, the sultan Yazid hung over a dozen Jews who refused to convert to Islam around 1790, and the rest converted for fear of the gallows. You can find Muslims in the city to this day called El Kohen, and you know their origins! (The current Mayor, Mr. Shabbat, who has accused Jews of wanting to take over the world, is presumably also a descendant.) Maimonides, the philosopher who studied and perhaps taught at the local university, the Qarawiyyin, saw his own teacher put to death here, so the head of the Fes community has told me.

True - Fez has an ugly history of forced conversion. Around a quarter of Muslims are descended from Jewish converts.

The echoes of the persecution are still live. One of those murdered in Fes in 1912 was a Madame Serrero. Benjamin Serrero, a friendly fellow, with whom I dined on a recent visit, helped organize synagogue services here. He was bludgeoned to death with a hammer last month. One of the children murdered recently in Toulouse was Myriam Monsonego, a direct descendant of the Chief Rabbis Monsonego of Fes.

I visited the head of Fes’s Jewish community, Dr. Guigui. He’s a physician, much loved by the local population as a whole. One of my local contacts, unaware of my interest in this community, told me he’s the best doctor in town. We discussed centuries of persecution, and then moved on to the positive, as Dr Guigui told me with great pride of the recent refurbishment of an old synagogue here, and showed me photos of him together with England’s Prince Charles, when they visited it together last year. In his surgery, I met two Muslim students, who organized a symposium on the Holocaust near to here, unique in Arab lands. While Ahmedinajad adds to Jewish suffering by denying the Holocaust, young Muslim students spread awareness of it, as humanitarians, in Morocco.

Two sympathetic Muslims are not representative. In fact, they encountered antisemitism for being too Judeophilic.

The aftermath of the Fes pogrom (photo credit: Ben-Zvi Institute)

The aftermath of the Fez pogrom (photo credit: Ben-Zvi Institute)

Fortunately, most Jews in today’s Morocco feel safe, even with an avowedly Muslim-headed government. King Mohamed VI, as his father before him, has been highly appreciative and protective of them, and the kings are much loved in return. Indeed, the king’s grandfather, Mohamed V, has a status equivalent to that of a saint, having refused to hand the Jews over to the pro-Nazi Vichy occupying forces, during the Second World War.

This is the stuff of legend: King Mohammed V never handed over the Jews to the pro-Nazi Vichy forces because they never asked him to do so. On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that he rubber-stamped many discriminatory anti-Jewish Vichy decrees.

As far as Moroccan Jews worldwide are concerned, he is more popular than any gentile sovereign since Cyrus the Great helped build the Second Temple. (Current Persian heads of state are a little less popular today.)

Attitudes toward Jews are often positive in this country. A schoolteacher of my acquaintance, K, a committed and fervent Muslim, even tells me that most of the prophets in the Koran are Jewish. He is correct, but don’t repeat his words elsewhere in the Arab world, or you’ll find yourself in the local stocks.

Why are Moroccan Muslims’ attitudes to Jews so often different from those held by their coreligionists elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East?

Not so, according to this newspaper article.

First, they are far away from the Arab-Israel conflict. (...) As far as protecting their Jewish minority is concerned, what the kings say and do matters. They appointed Jews as ministers and royal advisers, showing the royal seal of approval. But where there were at least 200,000 Jews 70 years ago, today under 5,000 remain.

Ah, there's the rub. No matter what the king says and does, the Jews continue to desert Morocco.

Serge Berdugo, the ebullient secretary-general of Moroccan Jewry and a former minister of tourism, is optimistic about the current state of his community. He tells me of his good relations with the new Islamic Premier, Abdelilah Benkirane. Newspapers photographed them embracing warmly the night Mr Benkirane won parliamentary elections. The joint message of the two leaders – Jews and Muslims get on well together in today’s Morocco.

Berdugo is a court Jew whose job is to project Morocco's 'tolerant' image.

May this be a beacon of tolerance for all of North Africa and the Middle East.

A curious disconnect here. This is the country where Benjamin Serrero was just bludgeoned to death with a hammer.

Read post in full

Monday, April 16, 2012

One hundred years since the pogrom of Fez

The Mellah's main street, devastated by the French bombardment of April 1912. The Mellah houses were later rebuilt with balconies and the streets widened.

While much of the western world has been marking the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, another tragedy is being quietly commemorated this week by Jews from Morocco. It is 100 years since a terrible pogrom devastated the Jewish quarter, or mellah, of Fez. Lyn Julius blogs at The Times of Israel:

Just as the Jews of Iraq have the Farhud, the Jews of Fez have a name for their pogrom: the Tritl – literally ‘sack’ of Fez. The irony was that the Tritl broke out as Jews had finished celebrating their Mimouna, a convivial end to Passover when they invite their Muslim neighbours into their homes for mouffleta pancakes.

Two weeks after Morocco became a French Protectorate on 30 March 1912, Muslim army recruits, outraged at the takeover of the infidel, mutinied against their French officers. Egged on by women standing on the rooftops, the soldiers are said to have played football with the officers’ decapitated heads and decorated their chests with their victims’ intestines. In no time at all, the cry went up, “To the mellah!

The French having previously confiscated all weapons, the Jews had no means to defend themselves. Looters broke doors down and stole jewellery, furniture, crockery, dishes and clothes. They desecrated synagogues and burnt Torah scrolls. Men, women and children were murdered in cold blood, hurled from roofs, mutilated and raped.

Sultana Elbaz was killed at an upstairs window. She was hit in the chest by a bullet fired by a soldier who had burst into the courtyard of her home. It is said that her baby survived by suckling her blood.

Escaping through a new gate from the mellah, Jews sought sanctuary in the medina, where some Arabs sheltered them. The Sultan Moulay Hafid took many starving Jews into his palace and sent them bread and olives. All the time the refugees remained there, until 28 April, it did not stop raining.

The abiding image of the 1912 Tritl is of Jews sheltering in the sultan’s menagerie. One photo shows the sultan’s lions and tigers in one cage, and Jews crammed cheek by jowl in the adjoining cage. So many Jews streamed into the palace that even the animal cages, the historical accounts suggest, had to be emptied for them. But the Jews had more than a passing familiarity with the beasts: the historian Nathan Weinstock writes that as degraded ‘dhimmis’, it was the Jews’ chore to feed the royal lions and tigers. He even met a man who knew a man who bore a scar on his face from one of these big cats.

On 19 April, in order to force the rioters away, French soldiers fired rockets and bombs, laying waste to much of the mellah. Jews abandoned the mellah, which was pillaged the next day.

During the three days of violence, 45 Jews were killed, although some estimates are higher. Over 70 were injured. French troops suffered an equal number of casualties*, while almost 1,000 Muslims were killed or wounded. A third of the mellah was destroyed, and 12,000 Jews found themselves homeless.

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The Fez Tritl will be commemorated from 16 to 18 April with a conference at the Ben Zvi Institute and at Bar Ilan University and a lecture at the Centre de Recherche Francais in Jerusalem.

*The Boston Evening Transcript puts the French toll at 27, including the correspondent of 'Le Matin' (Elder of Ziyon blog)

You can take Baghdad out of the girl...

Boats on the Tigris (photo: AFP)

This piece was written for Chatto & Windus's online magazine Night & Day, for their fourth issue which focuses on the Middle East, and appears here with their kind permission. The magazine is here:
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Nostalgia is a condition commonly afflicting refugees. But writer and playwright Samantha Ellis has never been to the place she feels nostalgic for - Baghdad. Read her charming piece. (With thanks: Niran, Lisette, Suad)

For as long as I remember I’ve been homesick for a place I’ve never seen. My parents are Iraqi Jews. I was born in London, but my past was quite literally another country. At four, my party trick was to say, in imperfect Judeo-Arabic, ‘You can put the curly tail of the dog inside a sugar cane tube for forty days and forty nights and when you take it out, it will still be curly.’

I thought all grown-ups spoke Judeo-Arabic and that English was just a children’s language. When I started school, I realised my mistake. I remember anxiously asking my mother to ‘Write me an A in Arabic. Write me a B’ but her alphabet had more letters than mine. I was distraught. If we couldn’t even translate our alphabets, how could we ever really understand each other?
At my grandparents’ house in Wembley, my family sat in a blue- grey cloud around the table where they chain-smoked and talked about Baghdad.

My brother and cousins and I heard stories of sleeping on the roof in the hot summer nights and seeing shooting stars, which they thought were UFOs. They kept a gazelle as a pet. They learned to swim in the River Tigris, thrown out of a boat to fight the currents. They ate water buffalo cream for breakfast, sold by women who carried it on their heads in round, flat trays. It was thick as cake, and the women would slice it with a hairpin for them to take home and eat with warm pitta bread and black, sticky date syrup.

They had ice cream that was chewy because it was made with mastic from crushed orchid roots—I’ve tasted it in a Turkish shop on Green Lanes so I know it exists. But I’ve never eaten masgouf, the enormous flat fish hauled from the Tigris and roasted on the riverbank, with spices, over an open flame. I’ve never seen the sandstorms that turned the skies red or the blind master musicians in dark glasses, playing languorous songs of lost love.

In the 1940s, Baghdad’s Jewish heyday, one-third of the city’s inhabitants were Jewish. Every third house, every third shop — the city almost closed down for Shabbat. No wonder they thought they’d never leave.

The Jews had come to Baghdad as captives of Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC, forced to dredge canals to link the Tigris and the Euphrates. They wept by the rivers, as per Psalm 137, but when they were granted permission to leave, many chose to stay. Under the Ottomans, Jews were protected – if not equal – but after the First World War anti-semitism grew, from street violence in the 1920s to discriminatory laws in the 1930s, to the farhud of 1941, a riot in which Jews were murdered, raped and their homes and businesses looted. The word farhud means a breakdown of order; the Jews would never again feel at home in Iraq.

So in 1950, when they were told they could sign up for a mass airlift to Israel, many (including my father’s family) registered to go. They were stripped of their Iraqi citizenship, and the Iraqi parliament passed a secret law to confiscate Jews’ possessions and freeze their liquid assets. The Jews who left Iraq left with nothing. After the taskeet, the denaturalisation (an inappropriately bland word for the destruction of a community), only 6000 Jews remained in Iraq. My mother's family was among them. They hoped things would get better.

But with the rise of the Baathists, things got definitively worse. In 1967, Iraq sent an army to fight Israel in the Six Day War. In 1969, crowds cheered as nine Jews, accused of being Zionist spies, were hanged in the streets. One was my mother’s cousin; he was only eighteen. By now, many Jews were leaving illegally, smuggled by Kurds over the mountains into Iran. My mother’s family made the attempt in 1970 but they were caught at the penultimate checkpoint and imprisoned. They finally got out of Iraq a year later.

My family tried to protect my brother and me from the bad stuff, but they were haunted by what they’d been through, and didn’t always clean up their stories. And I wanted to know.
I hated having my hair touched by strangers. Recently I worked out why; my mother had said that when interrogated in prison, they pulled her hair. No wonder I flinched. And then there was the story of the watermelon. The watermelon came on the day they took the men away. The women and children were terrified and the prison guards brought them a watermelon — just one. Eventually the men were brought back. I still don’t like watermelon.

The first stories I ever told were to fill in the gaps in my family’s stories. I’d watched The Thief of Baghdad and Sinbad the Sailor, and I was convinced my family had travelled everywhere by magic carpet. I had a very clear picture of my grandmother setting off for the copper market (where the banging was so loud you’d have to communicate in signs) perched elegantly on a fringed carpet. I’m writing a children’s play called Operation Magic Carpet about a child who wants to cure her family of nostalgia. Her intense wishing conjures up a genie, who bursts out of a mango pickle jar and flies her to Baghdad on a magic carpet. In an early workshop, watching the actors improvise my fantasy of rescue and return moved me to tears.

The first time I saw Baghdad moving and in colour was in 1990. We sat up watching the news of the Gulf War, and my parents pointed out landmarks. But the footage was from the bomber planes, and the landmarks were vanishing before our eyes.

I still dreamed, then, of going ‘home’ to Baghdad. There is no dignity in being homesick for somewhere you’ve never seen. Sometimes when I talk about being Iraqi in my north London accent, I feel like a fraud.

I spent my twenties chasing authenticity. As a journalist I wrote about my community (I wanted facts, not stories) and tried to learn to read and write but the alphabet never resolved itself out of a mass of squiggles.

I painstakingly transcribed my mother’s recipes, and discovered, among other things, that because I keep my flat at what I think is a normal temperature (not, like my mother’s, Baghdad-hot), I have to wrap my dough in a duvet and give it twice as long to rise. The one connection I didn’t make was marrying an Iraqi Jew. The community in London was warm, noisy and loving but also claustrophobic. We were clinging so hard to tradition that we had turned in on ourselves. I wanted something different.

In theory, I could have gone to Baghdad after 2003. When my friend Marina Benjamin told me about her trip (to research her wonderful history of the Jews in Iraq, Last Days in Babylon) over coffee in the British Library, I felt overwhelmed with yearning. But still I haven’t been back.
It’s not just that it isn’t safe, I’ve realised that going back wouldn’t ever be going home. Baghdad has changed beyond recognition, changed by the advance of modernity, and by war. And so much has been tarnished, or destroyed. There are now reportedly only seven Jews in the city.
As research for my play—and for pleasure — I’ve been reading a new translation of The Thousand and One Nights. Lots of the stories are set in Baghdad and there are magic carpets galore.

But one story shocked me. It’s about a firebird who wants to steal a magic ring from a jinniya. He orders a demon to help him and the demon comes up with a plan. Knowing the jinniya loves fishing, the demon trains a fish, first starving it then feeding it a corpse’s finger. The demon tempts the jinniya to put her hand out to tempt the fish — and when she does, the fish bites off her finger, and with it, the ring.

I’d always thought one day I’d swim in the River Tigris and eat masgouf, but in an echo of the grisly story, Saddam Hussein dumped the bodies of his victims in the river, and even now the police pull corpses out of the reeds. A cousin told me he’d heard the Tigris was “full of arms and legs”. I haven’t been able to get the image out of my head.

It was letting go of the idea of return that has finally made me able to start writing about Iraq. And in my life, too, I feel freer to create my own way of being an Iraqi Jew, and English too. My mother says people ‘cut onions on her heart’, while I say they’re rubbing salt in the wound. I say swings and roundabouts; my father says one day honey, another day onions. We understand each other fine.

I don’t eat cream for breakfast; I eat porridge, possibly the most un- Iraqi food in the world. But I eat my porridge with date syrup. You can take the girl out of Baghdad but... well, this dog’s tail is still, and always will be, curly.

Samantha Ellis's blog